Colorado is fortunate to have a diversity of wildlife. Our elk population is larger than that of any other state or Canadian province. In addition, our state is home to an abundant, thriving deer population.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife—whose mission is to protect and enhance the state’s wild creatures—knows how much people love Colorado wildlife. They love to watch the animals, learn about them, photograph them, hunt them and, on occasion, even feed them.
We know people mean well when they give tidbits to wildlife. What many don’t realize is that feeding big game is bad for the animals and dangerous for people. It’s also against the law. There are lots of good reasons why.
While putting out food for animals like foxes and deer seems harmless, repercussions can be disastrous. Please don't feed the wildlife!
It is illegal in Colorado to intentionally place or distribute feed, salt blocks or other attractants for big-game animals. This problem is mainly associated with deer.
In the winter, deer herds tend to move to lower elevations closer to homes and businesses. Some people may feel the deer do not have adequate food sources in the wintertime and believe that supplementing their diets with grain, corn or hay is helpful. In fact, the contrary is true.
“People who feed deer do more harm than good,” says Trina Lynch, a district wildlife manager with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife launches controlled, emergency feeding of big-game animals only during extremely harsh winters when substantial numbers of animals are threatened. In all other cases, big-game animals are better off left to obtain their food naturally.
Unwanted and Dangerous Guests
According to Lynch, there are several reasons why a Colorado law passed in 1992 makes it illegal to feed big game animals. One important reason is that deer are the primary prey of mountain lions. “Concentrating deer by feeding can attract mountain lions well within the city limits. It may become necessary to kill these lions for public safety,” she says.
What’s dinner for the neighborhood fox family is also a meal for other wild animals living near your home. Normally reclusive and wary, black bears will leave the woods and become accustomed to finding a meal in your backyard if you leave them something to eat.
Over time, predators such as bears and mountain lions become less wary and more emboldened. They’re more likely to attack pets and people, and when that happens, it can spell death for bears and lions, which often must be destroyed to ensure public safety.
The normal feeding behavior of big game animals allows them to spread out as they graze or browse. Artificial feeding disrupts that behavior and prompts deer to crowd together in small areas where they are more likely to be chased by dogs and hit by cars.
You may delight in seeing a deer grazing in your yard. Your neighbor, however, may become irate seeing his rose bushes chomped to a stub. For farmers and ranchers, the losses can be costly from big game munching on crops or hay. Additionally, luring wildlife to your yard by putting out food could set the wild animals up for death if they have to cross highways to get to feeders or if they encounter harassment from domestic pets.
What’s worse, once wildlife stop using their historic ranges, that land could end up being developed, which means the animals lose valuable habitat forever.
Concentrating deer by feeding them can also increase stress on the deer and hasten the spread of disease. Diseases can spread between wildlife and livestock, as well as to domestic animals and people. CPW is most concerned about devastating diseases, such as brucellosis and tuberculosis, which can be transmitted to humans.
We all know junk food is bad for people, but it’s even worse for wild animals. Deer, elk, and pronghorn are ruminants. That means they have a four-chambered stomach that serves as a 'fermentation vat'. They can eat lots of vegetation and digest it very thoroughly.
“Habituation to artificial feeds that do not meet their nutritional needs often results in deer that are in poor condition,” explains Bob Davies, a wildlife biologist in Colorado Springs. Unlike natural foods, treats from people often cannot be digested properly by big game. In fact, "human food" can stop a wild animal’s digestive system, causing it to get sick and die.
Big game depend entirely on native vegetation, such as grasses, forbs, and shrubs. Those plants provide all the nutritional requirements the animals need to survive in Colorado, even through winter. Eating non-natural kinds of foods can result in nutritional problems for wildlife, or even death.
Although commercial feeds are available at many stores, Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists warn against using them. "Some of these products may indicate they will attract certain wildlife species, including deer,” says Davies. “People should be aware that if they place feed out and deer consume it, they may be breaking the law. Fortunately, once people learn about the negative impacts that occur when deer are fed, most stop doing it,” he says.
Deer and Garden Damage
People who attract deer to their neighborhood also run the risk of damaging their property and their neighbor’s property. “Some people are under the impression that if they supply a food source to the deer it will prevent the deer from damaging their ornamental plants. On the contrary,” says Lynch; “it usually results in greater damage to your plants.”
Instead, Lynch recommends:
• landscaping with native plants
Colorado Parks and Wildlife supports and encourages using backyard bird feeders to supplement natural food for song birds. Be sure that the food you provide song birds is fresh and clean, and clean the feeder periodically. Common bird foods include sunflower seed and millet; some birds also are attracted by fresh fruit. In addition to your feeder, be sure to offer a source of water for your backyard birds, year-round if possible. Remember, if you start a bird feeding program, some bird experts suggest you continue all winter and through spring. That way, the birds that become dependent on the feeder will still have a source of food.
A word of caution, however: If you live in bear country, be aware that certain bird foods, particularly hummingbird nectar, are very attractive to bruins. Put your bird foods and hummingbird feeders away if you don’t want to inadvertently create potentially dangerous conflicts with our state’s largest predator close to your home. For more information, contact your nearest Colorado Parks and Wildlife office.
Under Colorado law, intentionally feeding big game animals is illegal. The prohibition applies to deer, elk, pronghorn, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and bears. Violators face a $50 fine.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife hopes you won’t face such a fine and that we’ve explained why it’s best to simply let Mother Nature take care of wild animals. If you don’t, you quite literally could end up loving our wildlife to death.